The Titanic - The Sinking of One Man's Reputation (EIBF Review)

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Frances Wilson, Sheena Macdonald (chair)
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This session with Frances Wilson was chaired by Sheena McDonald who immediately discovered that very few people had read Frances Wilson's book "How to Survive the Titanic" which deals with the actions of J Bruce Ismay, the man who is alleged to have jumped into one of the very few lifeboats and survived the disaster.

Wilson painted the picture of Ismay, a very rich man, managing to secure his safety while children of fourteen were being turned away from the lifeboats. Of course, at that time on the Titanic it was very much a case of the First Class passengers being given priority over the others; this was the accepted way of life in the class society of those days, however much we abhor it today.

Wilson also pointed out that Ismay was not the 'owner' of the Titanic, but the Chairman of White Star Line which had been sold to J.P. Morgan & Co who were in the process of establishing the International Mercantile Marine Company of which Ismay then became President in 1904.

In spite of this Ismay would still be seen by most people as the senior person aboard Titanic on that fateful journey.

Wilson confessed that she had read Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad and was fascinated in the way that Ismay had been vilified while Conrad had been much more forgiving and understanding of his lead character than the public had been of Ismay.

At the American Inquiry he was treated as a murderer and was not considered as "a passenger" as he had not bought a ticket.  There is no doubt, claimed Wilson, that Ismay was treated with the greatest respect by the Captain of Titanic (Smith) and in fact she stated that Ismay was given a Marconi-gram by Smith which warned of the dangers of several icebergs directly in Titanic's path.   Wilson said that Ismay simply "stuffed the Marconi-gram in his pocket".

Perhaps Ismay had too great an influence on Captain Smith and the fact that Ismay was such a senior individual in the Company led the Captain to take too much notice of his views.    In spite of this Wilson states that Ismay had already taken the decision to retire and was actually something of "a figure apart" which is illustrated by his actions when he reached the Carpathia.

In some accounts he demanded a stateroom and food, while in others  he was in the medical bay and virtually ate nothing while on board - the recollections of individuals do seem to vary.

Frances Wilson said that some accounts described Ismay as helping to organise the loading of women and children into the lifeboats, however, others say that someone ordered him to get aboard a lifeboat - but who would order the senior person in the Company to do this?

Wilson stated that the Captain was not to be seen, so it could not have been him - or could it?    Why did Ismay not say that he had been ordered to take a place in a lifeboat?   One must assume that he would simply not have been believed, nor was it credible that someone would "order" such a senior figure to do anything.   But was Ismay helping to organise the evacuation because no one else had taken charge?    

It is known, according to Wilson, that no lifeboat drill had been carried out, so no one knew what to do and in any event there were too few lifeboats anyway.    Wilson also claimed that Captain Smith should never have been in command of the Titanic; he was too old and had been involved in another accident at sea immediately before taking command of the Titanic.   He failed as Captain of his ship as he was the seaman and his word should have been law.

Ismay lived for a further twenty five years, but remained a recluse although he was exonerated by both inquiries.   However, he was a hate figure in America and in Britain.    Most people saw this as a total whitewash as the Board of Trade had issued a seaworthiness certificate for the Titanic in spite of the greatly reduced and inadequate number of life rafts and lifeboats.

Ismay followed the advice of J.P. Morgan which was , "to write little and say less".

This rather reflected the approach of Edwardians who were generally hugely overconfident in their ability - hence the Titanic.

In summary Frances Wilson saw Ismay as a man who felt he had been treated unfairly - others who had been saved had lost all their possessions, but he had lost his possessions and also his reputation. 

Event: 12 August, 2012, 8:30pm

Read Vivien Devlin's review of the Frances Wilson event at the EIBF